With your imagination, a few inexpensive props and some clever framing, you can defy
A while ago, Murder She Wrote was on location at the university where I was then teaching, and
by pure coincidence they shot two scenes in my classroom. I taped the episode when it aired and then
showed it to my media arts classes, who were sitting in the very room where those scenes had been
In neither sequence did the classes recognize their own room, even though they could easily see
on-screen elements that were unmistakably identical to those in the real world around them. How come?
Because the TV production crew had turned my classroom into two different sets: a professor’s office and a
storage/utility room. Notice, too, that neither set was a classroom.
“Okay,” you think, “magic on demand–big deal. That’s Hollywood’s stock in trade. But what’s that
got to do with videomakers who’re getting started? You expect me to build the Starship Enterprise?”
No, but you could easily “build” that office and that storeroom in exactly the same way as the
Hollywood crew, in exactly the same 10 minutes’ time, and with exactly as much on-screen realism. Oh,
and at exactly the same cost: zilch!
(As you can see from this example, a video “set” is not just a fake room built on a movie sound
stage. It’s any environment that you customize or even merely adjust somewhat to improve it as a
background for your video.)
Creating sets is remarkably simple, once you understand the basic principles. Not just set-
building principles, mind you, but the fundamental rules of the video world itself.
These rules are so important to all videomaking that you need to understand them fully even if
you never build a set, never dress a location to spruce it up, never so much as shift a fern so it doesn’t grow
from an actor’s head. If you understand and use these principles, you can progress from documentary
snapshooting to making full-blown videos.
The Fundamental Principles
Movies are possible because the world on the screen operates by several unbreakable rules that don’t apply
in the actual universe where you and I reside. Of these many rules of movie space and time, here are a few
that apply particularly to sets:
- If something’s outside the frame, it doesn’t exist.
- If it’s outside the frame but the videomaker tells you it does exist, then it does exist.
- One locale on the screen can be synthesized from several different locations in the actual world, stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster.
- The same place in the actual world can become many different places on the screen world.
If these rules sound about as clear as “a wet bird never flies at night,” don’t fret. They’re easy to
understand by example. Though I’ve invented both the story sequence and the production methods, they are both typical of the ways in which videomakers exploit the rules governing movie sets. In industrial training videos, for instance, shooting this way is routine.
Here are the setups that tell the story:
1a. Chad climbs down off the truck that has brought him to the city.
1b. He thanks the 18-wheeler’s driver…
1c. …who acknowledges him and drives off.
1d. Chad looks for and finds the hotel where Wilma has promised to meet him.
1e. Sure enough, Wilma is watching for him from her window.
1f. So Chad crosses the street to the hotel, enters it…
1g. …and climbs the staircase to the second floor…
1h. …where Wilma admits him to the room.
Pretty simple, right? Simple indeed, except for a few trifling details:
- The 18-wheeler is not there at all.
- The building Chad spots is not a hotel.
- Wilma is not looking out the window
- The staircase is not in the building
- The bedroom isn’t either–and it’s not a bedroom .
In fact, this sequence might well be shot in four completely different parts of town (or parts of the
world, for that matter) and only one of them, the street, is even roughly what it seems to be.
So let’s take this sequence to pieces, to see how it exemplifies our rules of video space.
If It’s Not in the Frame…
The most important rule is, if it’s not in the frame it doesn’t exist; and this rule has two consequences for
set-making. First, you can frame off (exclude) anything that doesn’t belong in your story (starting, of
course, with the production crew and video equipment). Figure 1b show how this works.
In 2a we see Chad climbing down from the 18-wheeler cab onto the busy street, as the shot
appears on the screen. But figure 2b reveals two crucial things that don’t exist in 2a: a sidewalk and a
Since our low-budget shoot won’t allow us to block off a city street, and since it would be unsafe
to place cast, crew, and equipment in a busy thoroughfare, we are actually working in safety on an adjacent
sidewalk. But since an 18 wheeler wouldn’t drive across a sidewalk, we exclude said sidewalk from our
frame and, SHAZAM! it disappears.
In one sense, the issue is moot anyway, because there is no 18 wheeler at this location, as you can
see. Instead, Chad steps backward off a humble wooden box (called an apple box, trivia fans) that
substitutes for the truck step. We’ll address this non-existent truck in just a moment; but the point here is
that because the box is not in the frame, it does not exist.
Neither does the back window in Wilma’s hotel room, as you can see from Figure 1c and Figure 1d. Her
“room” is actually an empty office suite, rented (cheap) for the shoot, and “dressed,” as it’s called, with a
bed. But since we see Wilma gazing out a window on the front wall of her room, it’s unlikely that the back
wall of this urban hotel room would also have a window.
The other problem with our rented empty office is that the space is much bigger than a typical
hotel room and the right-hand wall is merely a partition that turns a right angle in the foreground.
Both window and wall present no problem because we simply frame off them, and since they’re
outside the frame, they just don’t exist. As for the size of the room, it’s only as big as our camera setups
make it appear.
The second effect of this rule is a blessing for poverty-stricken videomakers: if it doesn’t exist
(because it’s not in the frame) you don’t have to supply it and/or make it look right. Notice that there’s no
dresser, no closet, no TV set, no chair in this hotel room. Because we never see the part of the room that
these expensive props might occupy, we don’t have to provide them. The moral: don’t create a video set
like a stage set, where the audience sees everything. Instead, decide in advance what the camcorder will see
and supply only enough set to fill its frame.
But if You Say It Exists…
Our second major rule goes like this: if it’s not in the frame but we imply its existence, then it does
To see how this works, look at Figure 2a and Figure 2b. The actor playing Wilma does her scene in the bedroom set assembled in the rented office. She is never actually in the building that plays the role of the hotel in the exterior scenes. To place her there, we’re going to imply the existence of the hotel. As you can see from figure 2b, we’ve found a window frame assembly in a junk yard and propped it up on 2×4 legs on the edge of the bedroom set. By throwing a splash of movie light “sunshine” on the frame and the actress behind it, we simulate exterior light.
Because the video frame hides the edges of this freestanding window, we can’t see that it’s not
attached to the hotel facade. To imply that it is, however, we zoom in to feature a window in the real hotel. (Even zoomed in, the shot is too long to reveal whether
anyone is standing in the window.) When we cut directly from the exterior window to the frame on the
bedroom set, we imply that they are one and the same.
If we imply the hotel around the window frame by juxtaposing shots, we suggest the 18 wheeler
by the actor’s performance and by sound effects, as you can see from Figure 2c and Figure 2d. In 2c Chad waves
good-bye to empty space beyond the frame line. To enhance the illusion, the editor lays in sound effects of
a cab door opening and shutting, plus a diesel engine idling, then revving and dwindling in the distance.
Once again, we make something outside the frame exist simply by implying that it does. Even the truck
driver’s line is recorded separately and laid in over the shot.
E Pluribus Set
“Wait a second,” you say, “in that other shot (3b), we really do see that big truck.”
True, but not on the city street where we imply its existence. Here’s what actually happens:
Because a real Peterbilt tractor and commercial trailer would be way too expensive to rent, we go out, say
to a truck stop, and grab a shot of a tractor cab with a blue sky background and an interior too dark to
reveal a driver.
With this shot cut into our sequence, and with the driver’s dialog laid in, the truck appears to be
right there on the city street.
This illustrates our third rule of sets: one locale on the screen is often synthesized from two or
even more separate real-world locations.
For that flight of stairs that leads up to Wilma’s hotel room, we can’t use the stairs at the city
location, and the stairwell at the office where we shoot the “bedroom” looks too institutional. So we find a
wooden staircase in an old house and make Chad’s stair climbing shot there.
If you include the office bedroom set, this sequence requires four different real-world locations: the city exterior, the truck’s actual location, the staircase, and the empty office dressed as a hotel bedroom.
The most common application of this rule involves doors. In videos, the two sides of a door are often not the same door. The exterior of a door is usually a location shot, while the interior side is on a sound stage.
All of which brings us full circle to the scenes from Murder She Wrote that were shot in my
classroom. By spotting some shelves and boxes in one corner and placing a bookcase, a desk, and a chair in
front of a window, opposite, they created two different sets in a single real-world location. (And by
framing off the classroom’s chalkboards they made them “not exist.”)
This sneaky exploitation of space exemplifies our fourth and final rule: the same place in the
actual world can become many different places on the screen world.
To see how this might work in our demonstration sequence, look at the empty office in Figure 4 to see how the same space can easily become two different places. Add a bed to the right half of the room and you have a hotel room. Place a carpet below the window on the left and add a sideboard and you’ve built the rudiments of a living room or den. It’s this kind of “set building” that’s just as easy for a beginner as it is for a Hollywood crew.
As you can see, this little disquisition on sets hasn’t told you how to build walls or color-
coordinate properties or design spaceship interiors. But I hope it has delivered a few ideas that are even
more useful because they are so fundamental to all video production:
- If it’s outside the frame it doesn’t exist.
- If the videomaker says it exists, then it does exist, even if you can’t see it.
- You can assemble a screen locale from several real-world locations.
- You can recycle a real-world location as several screen world locales.